The American Indian Film Festival reveals a people made foreign on their native soil

“Time has gone elsewhere, it has taken the land from beneath our feet. So, without moving at all, we have become exiles.”

Scott Malcomson, Borderlands: Nation and Empire

Olivia (Wendy Walker) is an exile. In fact, in Gil Cardinal's Borders, part of the “Four Directions” series at the American Indian Film Festival, Olivia is trapped between countries, literally, confined to the no man's land within the U.S.-Canadian border because she refuses to declare citizenship other than “Blackfoot.” By turns earthy and earnest, Borders dramatizes how indigenous peoples are treated as foreigners on their native soil. And Olivia's hardy humor throughout captures the spirit of this 20th annual celebration of American Indian cinema, which runs Nov. 9-11 at the Palace of Fine Arts and Nov. 15-16 at the Kabuki in S.F. The films range from shorts to full-length features.

Two documentaries, White Shamans & Plastic Medicine Men and Laxwesa Wa — Strength of the River, also delineate the complexities and complicities of peoples caught between worlds. Shamans is a wry deconstruction of the wigwam capitalists who sell faux native spiritualism to weekend warriors. Structurally evenhanded rather than strident, the film alternates between New Age vision questers and real Indians. Which makes it all the more satisfying to watch the pretenders draw their own blood: We're not white people trying to be American Indians, they insist; cut to a drum circle of pale faces chanting, “Hiya-hiya.”

Strength of the River is writer/director Barb Cranmer's heartfelt look at three First Nation fishing cultures in the Pacific Northwest. Following the harvest of herring roe and salmon in coastal British Columbia, Cranmer traces the history of how first commercial overfishing then restrictive conservation measures have threatened the economic self-sufficiency of the Stó:L›, 'Namgis, and Heiltsuk peoples. “That's our buffalo — the salmon,” says one lifelong fisher with a plaintive smile.

Unhappy hunting grounds also take center stage in The Silent Enemy, which appears in a restored print of the 1930 epic. Notable for its all-native cast, moonlit blues, and sepia teepee interiors, this tinted black-and-white silent film begins in the seductive haze of a pre-Columbian Indian summer, then wanders north in search of game and melodrama. More poetic (and didactic) is Randy Redroad's High Horse, a sober, slightly surreal “freedom myth” about bike messengers, mounted police, and feckless yuppies in the chilly melting pot called Manhattan.

Still, it's hard to beat the gently subversive Borders. Writer Thomas King's witty understatement begins on the reservation, where Olivia's son is warned about the drunk who lost his “business” to a hungry prairie dog. Even during the stay in limbo through rain, sleet, and snow, the film remains focused on mundane details — Olivia worries about her houseplants — leaving the symbolism in the background. Like the generations behind and ahead, Olivia knows “the Blackfoot were here long before there was a border” — and that even official “little misunderstandings” have to be nibbled off at the root.

The American Indian Film Festival runs through Thurs, Nov. 16, in S.F.; for schedule/ticket info call 554-0525.

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